Some might think cork floors are a relatively recent trend, but there was a time, decades ago, when cork was thought to be the next "it" material in home design. Revered architect Frank Lloyd Wright used cork flooring, and you'll still find original cork floors in California's beautiful mid-century bungalows. In fact, cork has been used for nearly 5,000 years, for everything from fishing buoys to even insulation in ancient times. But modern cork flooring has been used for well over a century now, and with today's engineering methods in the mix, the disadvantages of cork flooring are few.
Cork Flooring: A Green Flooring Material
For truly green friendly floors, the best options are cork and bamboo, but the difference between bamboo and cork is the cork tree survives the harvest, making it a renewable resource. In fact, removing the bark every decade or so keeps cork trees healthy. Cork is the bark of the cork oak (Quercus Suber), which grows in Southwestern Europe and Northwestern Africa. But Portugal is the steward of cork, with nearly 30 percent of its forests being cork trees, comprising nearly half the world's cork oaks.
Cork is huge in Portugal's gross domestic product, and is the foundation of their natural ecosystem, sustaining over 200 species. That's why cork tree harvesters train for eight years and are Europe's highest-paid agriculturalists: their skills are so critical to the health and life of the tree.
Cork oak trees live for around 200 years, and once the tree hits 25 years old, its bark can be harvested maybe 20 times, once every nine to 12 years with the first harvest being the least valuable due to irregularities. The trees are so protected that even motor vehicles are regulated nearby, making the harvest work all done on hands and feet.
Cork oak trees get a helping hand elsewhere, too – from one of Portugal's top five exports, their prized pigs. Pig herders walk their herds through the cork tree forests, where they graze on the cork oak's fallen acorns for their protein. As they meander, they digest the nuts and pass the nuts back to the forest through the pig's droppings, reseeding and fertilizing the forest at once.
The acorn fat makes the pigs among the world's best pork, known on the Spanish side as "jamon Iberico," one of the world's most expensive pork products, selling for around $125 per pound. In Portugal, pork and cork are a winning pair, working together to keep their ecosystem healthy and forever renewed.
Types of Cork Flooring
Cork today can be engineered into cork planks or stay relatively similar to its natural state, in rolls. Why cork fell out of favor as a flooring choice for a few decades was because of the extensive waxing and sealing process required to protect the floor. As other types of flooring became easier to install, the finishing process to cork made it less desirable. Today, the manufacturing process and science have simplified the process somewhat, making cork flooring more popular again.
Cork products are typically found in parquet-style cork tiles and in cork planks, which are similar to laminate and engineered wood.
Cons of Cork Flooring
The list of disadvantages is short with cork flooring, with perks being many. Among the reasons you could be resistant to cork would be price. It's more costly, but like any good hardwood flooring product, it can often be refinished after a couple decades.
It also has a history of being vulnerable to high traffic, scratching and scuffs because it's made with millions of air pockets that make it more vulnerable to walking and scraping from heavy furniture and pets' claws. Some companies now make anti-scratch cork flooring, which help alleviate those concerns, but those millions of air pockets are going nowhere, so its innate vulnerabilities remain.
Like most wood flooring, cork flooring is not ideal in excessively humid locales, as humidity causes it to expand and contract, so a relatively constant 50 percent humidity is desired. Installing 100 percent cork flooring in kitchens and bathrooms means having proper underlayment, but diligent maintenance is needed to keep the floors looking great.
The softer nature of cork flooring has many appeals, but when resale value can be affected by a decline in appearance, it's less optimal for heavy traffic, large dogs with unclipped nails or particularly rambunctious kids. Recent engineering advancements make these concerns less relevant, so dig into each product's warranty and investigate manufacturer-suggested uses and expected longevity.
Benefits of Cork Flooring
When considering cork flooring's pros and cons, the pros are surprisingly robust and make the product a terrific choice for many homeowners.
Acoustics: Those millions of tiny air pockets are part of why cork is so great for acoustics. If you're forever frustrated by the echo in a room, or the way sound carries in your home, cork flooring might be the solution you've craved. It's so effective at sound tempering that sound studios have been known to use cork not only on floors, but also as wall paneling and wall interiors.
Insulating: NASA used cork flooring in its heat shield for the Mars Rover, so you know it's science-certified for its temperature-regulating qualities. If you're the sort of person who feels that shiver right down to the bone when stepping on a cold floor in January, then only carpet beats cork flooring for its warmth. But cork has thermal R-value (1/4-inch cork tile is R-0.28; 1/2-inch is R-1.18). This is R-value is less relevant for already-insulated floors, but in some climates, every bit helps – plus, it's always cozier than wood or tile during a cold winter.
Durable: Right, after just saying it's less optimal for heavy traffic? Well, yes, because its appearance can handle a little of that foot traffic. While dropping something on cork flooring could dent it, it's also less likely than tile, wood and vinyl to suffer that kind of damage because the floor has a little protective bounce to it.
Softer: That natural give with all the minuscule tiny air pockets means cork flooring is the softest of non-carpet or vinyl flooring options. It makes it slightly kinder on the body when walking all day and can be a preferred flooring for people with bone and joint issues. If you suffer achey feet after a day of chores around the house, cork floors are a popular choice that softens the strain while still providing firm support.
Natural defenses: Cork may be vulnerable to expansion in excessive humidity or wet spots, but it has antimicrobial properties and is naturally resistant to mildew and mold. And it's the only flooring that doesn't attract dust, all of which makes it fantastic for those with allergies. It's also a fire inhibitor, so it'll slow the combustibility a bit.
Attractive for resale: Once cork is in a home, people tend to love it. It's a great investment flooring because it adds to a home's resale values. Part of that is down to how easy it is to repair sections of the floor (so always buy extra product), and its ability to be sanded and refinished to extend the surface life. In California, many homes still have their 1950's cork floors going strong, because it's that durable when well-cared for and maintained.
Steffani Cameron is the daughter of a realtor and interior decorator mother and a home contractor father. Steffani is a professional writer with over five years' experience writing about the home for BuildDirect and Bob Vila. Raised with a mad love for decorating, Steffani gave up her Art Deco apartment to travel and work remotely for five years. She's in love with experiencing traditional decor around the world, including stays in Thai teak plantations on the Mekong River and cave homes in Turkey.